Food & Drink: Cookbooks to savour: Michael Bateman samples the Christmas publishing menu, from little stocking-fillers to sumptuous coffee-table tomes

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The Independent Culture
THE AGE of the cookery bookette is upon us. Attractively produced miniature books, tiny but perfectly formed, make good Christmas stocking-fillers at under pounds 5. And they are so short that you can digest them in five minutes. But surprisingly, perhaps, they contain good and perfectly workable recipes.

The most Lilliputian, at 4in wide and less than 6in high, are The Little Kitchen Collection from Appletree Press in Belfast. They cost pounds 3.99, average 30 recipes each, and cover the world's cuisines with respected writers (such as Anna del Conte on Italy), or particular topics, as in Patricia Lousada's Chocolate.

A rival list is Kyle Cathie's original series of Festive Foods at pounds 4.99. And Pavilion Books started this year a series diligently written by John Midgley, including The Goodness of Olive Oil (and other Goodnesses such as garlic, potatoes and beans, all at pounds 4.99).

These low-priced books provide a welcome antidote to the continuing stream of expensive, exquisitely photographed coffee-table books (who buys them?). One exception is a book I've been looking forward to, Savouring Italy by Robert Freson (Pavilion/ Callaway pounds 25). I once spent time on a shoot with this gifted photographer who, to my mind, lifts food photography to an art form that rivals the work of Dutch still-life masters.

The quality of the photographs in his new book won't disappoint, but what's going on? His mouthwatering pictures don't match the recipes printed beside them. The photographs were originally commissioned for a magazine with text by Claudia Roden. She had, however, already published them in The Food of Italy (Arrow pounds 9.99), one of the rave cookery books of last year. So the publishers of Freson's book had to try to match new recipes to the pictures. Sullivan without Gilbert. Loved the music.

But who needs pictures to enjoy books on cooking? Nigel Slater's Real Fast Food (Michael Joseph pounds 14.99) hasn't got any at all. This is a book shrewdly designed to appeal to people who love food but don't want to spend hours slaving away at the stove (ie, nearly everybody in Britain).

His thesis is that you can make a decent meal in far less time than it takes to heat a frozen supermarket supper thoroughly. And although he doesn't mean fast food in the sense of pizza and hamburgers, he doesn't exclude them (to make your own burgers, he says, use chuck or neck steak, 10 per cent fat, and don't overprocess to a sticky paste).

Nigel Slater is a trained cook and the food editor of Marie Claire. He has a magpie's instinct for purloining the brightest ideas. The bonus for most young people will be that many of the dishes need little or minimal cooking skill. The older generation may need a bit of help with Post- Modern cookery concepts - the carpaccios, plum tabbouleh and mango lassi.

And for the older generation? There is an excellent opportunity to examine the case for the claim that the classical cuisines of China and Italy are on a par with that of France. Two impressive works have just been published, both written by learned women with doctorates in philosophy. The Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking (Macmillan pounds 20) by Marcella Hazan is an omnibus edition of her two important books on classic Italian cooking, with an updated and enlarged section on pastas and sauces. It has everything in it - almost. I once told an Italian restaurateur who declined to tell me the secret of his risotto nero (made with the ink sac of the cuttlefish) that it didn't matter, anyone could get the recipe from Marcella Hazan's book. Well, you can't.

In China, eating has been rated a subject worthy of study by poets and philosophers for 3,000 years. In Classic Food of China (Macmillan pounds 25), scholar-cook Yan-kit So recounts that by the third century BC the Chinese had already sussed out the role of the taste buds, naming the five essential characteristics of taste: salt, sweet, sour, bitter and pungent (peppery hotness).

Yan-kit's recipes for complicated Chinese dishes, ranging from from Peking Duck to vegetarian shark's-fin soup, are meticulously set out, and you can be sure none of them includes monosodium glutamate. MSG, the Chinese 'gourmet powder' known as weijing, was a Japanese discovery in 1908; it insinuated itself into Chinese cooking in the 1940s, she explains, but the zip it adds to food makes everything taste the same. She does not approve. 'If, during the past two millennia, our ancestors have perfected the cuisine without MSG, I am content to continue this tradition.'

This has been Spain's year, with two lively television series on Spanish cookery: Keith Floyd looking in, Maria-Jose Sevilla looking out. Her book Spain on a Plate (BBC Publications pounds 14.95) is worth the price for a classic Basque recipe alone, Merluza en Salsa Verde (hake in green sauce), the fish poached in garlic-flavoured olive oil which gradually turns opaque and creamy.

We must on no account forget French food. Pierre Koffmann, the Michelin-starred Chelsea chef, continues his life story (with tantalising recipes) in La Tante Claire (Headline pounds 19.99), a follow-up to his best-selling Memories of Gascony. But this is haute-brow stuff. A more practical guide to French food is Mireille Johnston's French Cookery Course Part One (BBC Publications pounds 14.95). She is a French-born academic and she writes with warmth, intelligence and exactitude.

Two new books for vegetarians: A Feast of Flavours - The New Vegetarian Cuisine, by Annie Bell (Bantam pounds 14.99); she is a graduate in politics who opened a vegetarian restaurant at Books for Cooks in London, and now runs a vegetarian catering service. And the Oxfam Vegetarian Cookbook (Vermilion pounds 8.99) edited by Rose Elliot, an unusual book of its kind, since the emphasis is on good recipes rather than celebrities.-

(Photograph omitted)